How Most of Our Water Gets Polluted

water pollution

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the U.S., agriculture poses the greatest threat to water quality and is single-handedly impairing drinking water supplies across the country
  • In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) states that 92 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphates in waterways are the result of industrial farms and CAFOs
  • More than half (58 percent) of the rivers and streams in Iowa fall short of federal water quality standards, making them unsuitable for swimming and fishing, while another 23 percent are “potentially impaired”
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also states that manure from industrial agriculture is the primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus in U.S. waterways

By Dr. Mercola

In the U.S., agriculture poses the greatest threat to water quality and is single-handedly impairing drinking water supplies across the country. The key culprits are nitrogen, phosphates and other toxins that run off from industrial cropland (i.e., genetically engineered corn and soy) and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

In the Midwest, Iowa is at the heart of the storm, as the leader in U.S. corn and soy production and a major producer of CAFO hogs, eggs, cattle and chickens. In fact, more than 85 percent of Iowa’s land is used for agriculture,1 much of it bordering key waterways.

More than half (58 percent) of the rivers and streams in the state fall short of federal water quality standards, making them unsuitable for swimming and fishing, while another 23 percent are “potentially impaired.”2

In the greater Des Moines area alone, a region that’s home to more than 500,000 people, a water filtration facility that cost more than $4 million was installed in 1991, and it costs $7,000 a day to run. Water prices have risen up to 10 percent a year to cover rising filtration costs, and it still can’t keep up with all the nitrogen flowing into the water, according to environmental journalist Mark Schapiro.3

Now the city is facing a need for another $15 million filtration system or it will be forced to find new groundwater sources. In the meantime, people in the state have been plagued with increased risks of cancer4 and birth defects,5 likely linked to the nitrogen-contaminated drinking water.

Industrial Farms and CAFOs Are the Primary Sources of Water Pollution

In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) states that 92 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphates in waterways are the result of industrial farms and CAFOs.6 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also states that manure from industrial agriculture is the primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus in U.S. waterways.7

The resulting damage includes an excess of nutrients that leads to algae overgrowth, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish and other marine life in expansive dead zones.

This, combined with the excess fertilizers applied to monocrops like corn and soy, sends a steady stream of nitrogen and phosphorus to both surface and groundwater, spreading potentially disease-causing organisms and unsustainable amounts of nutrients along the way.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest recorded dead zone in the world, beginning at the Mississippi River delta and spanning more than 8,700 square miles — and industrial agricultural pollution is primarily to blame.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water costs nearly $5 billion a year,8 which the industrial agriculture industry has been largely shielded from. The water utility in Des Moines, Iowa — Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) — sued three counties in 2015, alleging they polluted the river with nitrates from agricultural runoff.

Had the lawsuit succeeded, the agriculture industry would have had to make changes to limit runoff and would have been held accountable for cleanup costs.9 Unfortunately, the suit was dismissed.

According to Schapiro, “The judge ruled that a city water district has no legal standing to sue a county, and threw the matter to the state Legislature. The legislature, according to [Bill] Stowe [CEO and general manager of DMWW], has done little to address the problem.” Stowe continued:10

“Iowa has become the sacrifice state for industrial agriculture. As a native Iowan and somebody whose family has been around here for generations, we are the sacrifice, just like West Virginia has become the sacrifice state for coal.”

The state has also faced a plague of cutbacks in funding for water monitoring, environmental health positions within the state and initiatives to plant cover crops to help absorb excess nutrients and serve as a buffer between fields and streams. Even the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which was working to promote regenerative agriculture and reduce fertilizer runoff, lost its funding in 2017.11

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Iowa Ag Is Ruining the Mississippi River

Agricultural runoff doesn’t only affect those living near industrial farms, as much of the waterways in Iowa ultimately flow into the Mississippi River. A study published in PLOS One set out to quantify Iowa’s contribution of nitrogen pollution to the Mississippi river,12 which was named the second-most polluted waterway in the U.S. in 2012.13

There are well over 14,000 CAFOs in Iowa, primarily medium and large in size and housing pigs.14 In the 2016 State of the River Report by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the greatest source of chemical contamination to the river was found to be agricultural runoff.

For the featured study, stream nitrate and discharge data were collected from 1999 until 2016 at 23 Iowa stream sites near watershed outlets. The results confirm that much of the nitrates devastating the Mississippi river are coming from the state.

Iowa contributes an average of 29 percent of the nitrate load to the Mississippi-Atchafalaya Basin, 45 percent to the Upper Mississippi River Basin and 55 percent to the Missouri River Basin. Back in Des Moines, Schapiro reported, Stowe, the Water Works CEO, must choose one of two rivers from which to source the city’s water each day.

He’s often faced with an impossible choice of elevated nitrogen levels or phosphorous, the latter of which promotes the growth of toxic algae. Filtering out excess nitrogen requires use of the $7,000-a-day nitrogen filtration system, but allowing algae-contaminated water to flow could be even more damaging, leading to clogged filters and water shutdowns.

In 2014, citizens in Toledo, Ohio, were warned not to drink their tap water as it was found to contain significantly elevated levels of microcystins, caused by algae blooms in Lake Erie.15 Microsystins are nerve toxins produced by some blue-green algae that can cause fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures.

The city and surrounding areas became the first to report drinking water-associated outbreaks caused by harmful algal blooms.16 And, despite government agencies spending billions of dollars to help farmers prevent fertilizer runoff and circumvent the problem, algae blooms are getting worse instead of better.17

Overall, the EPA states that about 15,000 water bodies have been identified that have “nutrient-related problems,”18 and this is likely conservative. The EPA continued:19

Nutrient pollution remains the single greatest challenge to our Nation’s water quality, and presents a growing threat to public health and local economies — contributing to toxic harmful algal blooms, contamination of drinking water sources, and costly impacts on recreation, tourism and fisheries.”

What Are the Health Risks From Nitrates in Drinking Water?

A report released by the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) summarized the health risks of nitrates in drinking water.20 Researchers reviewed over 100 studies on the health effects of nitrates in drinking water and found multiple studies linked them to birth defects, bladder cancer and thyroid cancer.

Infants and children may be particularly at risk from nitrates in drinking water, as it can lead to “blue baby syndrome,” or lack of oxygen that can be life-threatening. In 2015 and 2016, for instance, residents of Erie, Illinois, a farming community, were warned not to give their infants tap water because it contained elevated nitrate levels of 11 ppm.21

While many of the health problems were found with nitrate levels higher than the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L, some studies suggested nitrate levels lower than the drinking water standard may still pose health risks, even at levels of just 5 ppm.

About 15 percent of private wells in Iowa, which are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, may have nitrate levels that exceed federal standards.22 Even areas that source their water from underground or groundwater aquifers may be at risk, as they may leach chemicals, including nitrates, from the soil.

About 90 million Americans get their water from groundwater sources, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that more than 3 million of them may be getting water with nitrate levels of 5 ppm or higher. According to EWG:23

“Water utilities are doing their best to deliver water with nitrate within the legal limits, but it’s an ever-increasing challenge. Erie is working with the USDA to install filters to reduce levels of nitrate in the village’s water systems. But it would be wiser for the USDA to prioritize practices designed to reduce nitrate loads at the source.

To keep drinking water free of contamination, it’s time for states to adopt basic standards of care for cropland. Requiring common-sense conservation practices ensures a baseline to protect source water, which can then be increased by voluntary measures.

The 2018 federal Farm Bill must include a stronger conservation compact that requires farmers to adopt conservation practices to reduce polluted runoff.”

North Carolina CAFOs Spew Feces Into the Environment Following Hurricane Florence

Natural disasters like hurricanes only add to the environmental damage inflicted by industrial agriculture. North Carolina is home to thousands of CAFO waste lagoons, and data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality revealed that more than 100 of them had released pig waste into the environment or were at risk of doing so following Hurricane Florence.24

The Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to clean water, has been sending out members in planes to document the devastation, taking photos of flooded CAFOs that would otherwise remain invisible. Waste lagoons and buildings housing thousands of animals were photographed submerged in floodwaters. Others had structural damage to the waste lagoon walls.

What’s in the billions of gallons of hog waste produced in North Carolina every year (which has now entered waterways in disturbing quantities)? In addition to the usual nitrogen and phosphorus that may lead to fish kills, E. coli and other pathogens, viruses and bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains are all but guaranteed.

After a hurricane, these toxins can flow freely into waterways, but even under ideal circumstances, CAFO waste lagoons may contaminate shallow groundwater with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, nitrates and ammonia.25 After the storm, the breached CAFOs will likely rebuild, only to cause more environmental damage come the next hurricane.

Writes Rick Dove, founding member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, “We need to give farming back to people who have traditionally raised animals with a sense of stewardship. At the very least, we need to move these industrial operations out of flood-prone areas.”26

Cleaner Water for Everyone

The solution to cleaner water for everyone lies in changing agricultural practices from industrial to regenerative. Choosing grass fed products like grass fed beef and bison over those raised in CAFOs is a solution that we can all take part in.

In addition, some farmers are slowly adopting the use of regenerative agriculture techniques like cover crops and no-till farming, which improves soil health and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides, benefiting insects. While changes are urgently needed on a national scale, on an individual level I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area.

In addition, it's best to assume your water is less than pure and take steps to remedy it, such as using a high-quality water filtration system (unless you can verify the purity of your water). If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested for nitrates and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water quality reports from the EPA.

You can also use EWG’s Tap Water Database, which allows you to enter your ZIP code to reveal what’s really in your tap water. To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower.

Everyone deserves clean water, but for most people that’s not what they get. Don’t assume that because your water looks and tastes pure that it is; take proactive steps to identify toxins in your tap water and subsequently remove them.